SHAWNEE — In a surprising decision that could turn Oklahoma workers’ compensation law upside down, a Pottawatomie County district judge ruled Friday that an injured tire worker can sue his employer for negligence because the injury was “foreseeable.”
“Neither side is pleased,” said Oklahoma City attorney Bryan N.B. King, who represented the Hibdon Tire Plus business where the injury occurred. “This result, if this order stands, creates a bad outcome for both employees and employers.”
Workers’ compensation attorney Bob Burke, who is representing injured tire worker Darrell Duck, said Pottawatomie County District Judge John. G. Canavan Jr. has issued a monumental ruling that challenges the foundation of Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation system.
“The sloppy drafting of that law in 2013 has caused so many problems,” Burke said. “It has really created a crisis now.”
The Oklahoma Legislature rewrote Oklahoma workers’ compensation laws in 2013 to shift the state from a court-based system to an administrative one. Burke and other attorneys have raised challenges to the constitutionality of several provisions in the new law.
The judge’s decision has created a furor because it threatens to dismantle what workers’ compensation attorneys like to describe as the “grand bargain.”
The bargain involved the creation of a workers’ compensation system 100 years ago to strike a balance between protecting the interests of employees and employers. Injured employees gave up the ability to sue their employers for negligence, except in cases of intentional wrongdoing, in exchange for the right to be compensated for their injuries by their employers without having to prove fault.
Employers were protected against huge verdicts for things like pain and suffering that could destroy their companies, while employees were provided assurances that they would be provided medical care for their injuries even if they, themselves, were to blame.
Burke said “foreseeable” means that an accident is “reasonably predictable.”
He believes 98 percent of accidental injuries probably fall within that category. Examples might include an oil-field worker who slips on a slick drilling platform or a firefighter who suffers smoke inhalation while battling a blaze, he said.
If all those types of cases are shifted to district courts, the result would be chaos, he said.
The ruling quickly caught the attention of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, which represents the interests of businesses in this state.
“We’re still assessing the ramifications of this ruling,” said Jonathan Buxton, senior vice president of government affairs for the State Chamber of Oklahoma. “However, it appears to be an illogical rationale that runs counter to both the old workers’ compensation laws of this state and the new administrative system. This decision will lessen the likelihood that injured workers will receive quick compensation for workplace injuries and is antithetical to the goals of workers’ comp laws.”
In the case that sparked the lawsuit, Duck is seeking compensation for injuries to his neck and back that he sustained at his employer’s tire shop while using equipment to try to loosen a bolt on a wheel.